Chief Learning Officer, 10+ Years in Business Development & Leadership, Former Infantry Officer
March 12th, 2018
When you’re the leader of an organization, you have to be willing to experiment -- with new ideas, processes, etc.
This only works, however, if you understand that, when you experiment, you won’t always succeed. In fact, you may fail on occasion.
I wrote an article on transparency not too long ago championing how we are building a culture of transparency at IMPACT. In it, I shared how we keep our team apprised to everything we’re doing -- well, generally, everything other than personal salary information -- and how we include them in the decision-making process for major organizational changes.
In the spirit for transparency, we conducted an experiment at our February leadership team meeting.
“Let’s allow anyone from our team to call into our zoom channel and listen in.”
When Bob shared this idea with me, I was pretty excited. We’re gonna show the team how we interact as a leadership team!
Everyone will see how we disagree, debate, and come up with plans that really solve our problems. It will show our team that we take our quarterly employee survey seriously.
So, we tried it.
It started out really well.
Then it got a little weird.
Then we had to close the meeting for a while.
Then we decided we weren’t going to open it back up to the team.
Ultimately, we decided we would share the notes with everyone and not open our leadership team meeting up again in the future.
“The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions”
Truth be told, we genuinely wanted the team to be able to “see how the sausage gets made.”
I was really excited for the team to listen in and see how passionate the leadership team is about working on the business; To show them that we are listening;That we are trying to do the best we can to support everyone, run an amazing business, and have fun.
However, what we found as we dove head first into this idea was, while from the best intentions, opening the meeting to the entire organization was hindering conversation and potentially creating more issues than it would solve.
To be fair to our team, not everyone on the leadership team thought that opening the meeting was a good idea. Several members told me they thought what happened would happen.
Bob and I disagreed and thought it was going to be awesome. Our intentions were pure, but we were wrong…
Here’s why it didn’t work:
We Couldn’t Have Very Necessary Conversations
As we began the meeting, a few team members called in to listen. We went through some high-level overview stuff, what I saw us doing well, not doing well, and what I thought were red alerts (things we needed to fix now).
We talked through our individual updates, questions posed by our entire leadership team to each other, so we could understand what each teammate was focusing on and how they were doing.
Pretty simple stuff; Normal updates you’d hear in casual conversation around the office, in Slack, or anywhere else IMPACTers are really, but then we dug in.
We began discussing why we were making a shift in how we operate as an organization. Bob laid out his main reasons for it.
Discussion began and you could tell some of the leadership team didn’t feel comfortable having folks listening in.
There were points some team members wanted to make, with specific examples, but they didn’t want to air them to the entire organization.
No one wants to name names if others are listening, and that person isn’t there. So, discussion became guarded. In fact, there was almost an inability to communicate.
I recognized this and challenged the team to be authentic and say what they felt and needed to say no matter who was on the line.
I was committed to the fact that this was a great conversation that should be open…
-- Have I told y’all that I am wrong often?
As we continued the conversation, things got worse.
We could see the discomfort on several team members’ faces, and we decided to ask everyone listening to exit the meeting. We’d let them know when we were going to open it back up.
When we did this, a weight was lifted from people’s shoulders. We got to the heart of the issue, with examples -- and yes, naming names -- which allowed us to develop actionable solutions.
Some Issues Shouldn’t Be Public
We also found that some topics aren’t appropriate for everyone to hear.
We knew this before the meeting started and planned to have discussions about specific issues at a different meeting -- one that would remain closed-door.
However, with this said, we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t separate people from the issues we were discussing. People always became the denominator.
It actually hurt the conversation to not cite specifics and you can’t have an open discussion that any member of the organization can tune into without them being aware that they’re part of the conversation.
In the end, we found that we needed closed-door meetings to handle these issues.
We Played to the Audience
Knowing that others were watching/listening, not only influenced what we said, but how we said.
While the meeting was open, we found ourselves clarifying statements because we knew people were listening in and we wanted to ensure they understood what we were saying.
Without knowing how long they had been listening, we almost had to clarify every statement we made in order to not be misunderstood.
This was just not sustainable.
All of a sudden our leadership team meeting, which is probably the most important thing our leadership team does monthly, became theater.
On a related note, we found that, sometimes, people jumping in and out of the meeting only caught bits and pieces of the discussion.
This could completely change the meaning of what was said and we could then have teammates that didn’t hear the entire conversation sharing what they heard.
This is how rumors get started.
More importantly, this is where transparency can be dangerous.
That is exactly why we focused so hard an educating our team on the things we have given them (position tiers, quarterly financial plans). When we made an effort to educate them first, we minimized any possibility of a misunderstanding.
In this instance, let’s just say there was s no way to educate the team on what they heard, especially if they only catch a portion of the conversation.
They still heard what they heard, though completely out of context.
Another one of our discussion points of the day revolved around when we bring things to the team.
Bob and I love sharing ideas as we get them. We feel it gets inputs right away and that it will only make our thinking better, but others on the leadership team disagreed and brought something up that I knew could be an issue, but I never really thought about.
Some people don’t want to see things until they are more real.
There can be uncertainty and anxiety for some when they hear leaders talking about things that aren’t fully baked.
In our minds, we were showing them how much we trusted them, allowing them to listen in to hear how we are trying to solve the company’s issues and make IMPACT an even better place.
What we really did was create some anxiety and fear with our awesome team. The last thing we want to do is make people feel anxious or unsure about the future.
You Have to Experiment & Try New Things
I really wanted this to work. I would love to have written this article and shared how much of a win for transparency our open meeting was…
But here’s the thing -- Even though it didn’t work, it was still a huge win.
After the meeting, Bob sent out a message in our #general Slack channel.
He apologized to the team for our attempt at transparency not working. He owned the decision to close it off as much as he owned the idea of opening it up.
The response was awesome.
The team loved that we were willing to try things. They loved that we made an effort to let them in. Even with all of the uncertainty that it brought during execution, our team was grateful that we tried.
This proved to me how strong of an organization we have. We have leaders that are vulnerable and own successes and failures. We have teammates that understand and support everyone.
As you can see, even though we’ve decided not to open these meetings in the future, we gained more by being willing to try new things.
As you lead your team or organization, I hope this story of failure turned success allows you to feel empowered to try new things.
When we try new things and experiment, sometimes things aren’t going to work -- But be okay with that. It won’t destroy your organization, it will only make it stronger.
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